Daily Archives: March 26, 2009

Non-rival is non-relevant

I’m glad that Elisabeth Jones wrote to our tip page about her post–Fighting for non-rival pudding–because I’ve been wanting to spout off about non-rivalness for a while now.

Anytime you hear someone talk about intellectual property you are going to wind up hearing the phrase “non-rival.” The idea is that information or knowledge is a non-rival good. What this means is that when one person consumes information, it does not prevent another person from consuming it. So information or knowledge is not like land or pudding, which are “used up” when other people consume them. Ok, fine.

But from this idea many people quickly get to conclusions like: information just wants to be free; intellectual property is evil; DRM is the devil; and the Kindle is a giant threat to intellectual freedom. Maybe all those things are true, but I don’t think you can get there from the claim that information is non-rival.

First, I’m not even sure that information is non-rival. What about a juicy piece of gossip? The more people hear about it, the less juicy it becomes, the more it is “used up.” Or what about the secret to a magic trick? Or an insider stock tip? Or a trade secret? Or any information that gives someone a competitive advantage?

But even assuming that information is non-rival, nothing follows from this about intellectual property rights. Information and knowledge should be widely distributed because everyone in society will be better off (not because they are non-rival). But that doesn’t mean information has no value, or that the creators of information can’t charge for it, or put restrictions on who uses it and what they can do with it (within reason).

And even assuming that information is non-rival, that does not mean that books as containers of information are non-rival. In fact books are not non-rival in all respects, as anyone who goes to a library and finds the book they want “checked out” knows. If someone is using a book, someone else cannot simultaneously use it, hence it is not non-rival. Oh unless it’s an electronic book, with the right kind of DRM set up.

In her post, Jones jumps from the idea that information is non-rival to the idea that the Amazon Kindle will do “monumental and egregious harm…to intellectual freedom and the maintenance of an informed populace” because a person cannot take their Kindle book content to a used bookstore or donate it to a library like one could with a physical book. Jones claims that books are like bottomless cups of pudding because others can consume their contents hundreds or thousands more times.

This is going too far. It’s an open question whether Kindle will lead to a more or less informed populace. Kindle books are less expensive (after you shell out for the device) than physical books. Kindle makes it easier to carry more books at one time on a train or a plane. Perhaps for these reasons, Kindle will lead to a more informed populace, not less. As for not being able to sell or give away Kindle books, that is a disadvantage, but if people could give away digital books there’s a good argument that that activity would undermine the whole market because sharing networks would be set up. We may like that, but I don’t think there’s an inherent right to it simply because information is non-rival or because information is a public good. Physical books are not, as Jones claims, bottomless cups of pudding. Eventually they wear out, especially if the first owner treats them roughly or writes in them. The more they are used, the more they are used up. As far as I know there is nothing stopping someone from loading up a Kindle and selling it or giving it away, or even lending it out, as some libraries have done.

The debate of ownership vs. access for libraries is not a simple one, and it’s quite a stretch to blame the current economic meltdown on access over ownership. Intellectual goods may be non-rival, but physical books are not. Something follows from the fact that information is non-rival, but I’m not sure what and I’m not sure it’s interesting. Whatever it is I don’t think it has anything to do with intellectual property rights, the debate between ownership versus access in libraries, or if the Kindle is a boon or threat to intellectual culture.